Friday, April 27, 2007

WHERE HAVE ALL THE PROPHETS GONE?

Here’s the gist of Marvin McMickle’s Where Have All The Prophets Gone? Reclaiming Prophetic Preaching in America, 2006. It’s black writing-as-preaching at its most passionate, biblically enlightened, and intelligent (he has a couple of earned Drs).

When (American) preaching isn’t prophetic you won’t hear anything about the two million persons packed into overcrowded prisons, most of them for drug-related offences that could be treated more effectively and at a fraction of the cost; or the 46 million persons without medical insurance; or the still-prevailing racism and sexism. Instead there’s an emphasis on just two ‘justice’ issues: abortion and same-sex marriage; the emergence of an oxymoron called patriot pastors; a focus on ‘praise and worship’ that doesn’t result in compassionate discipleship; and finally the vile messages of prosperity theology which have dominated the preaching of televangelists and many pulpits.

Where have all the prophets gone?
Gone in search of megachurches, every one.

Where have all the prophets gone?
Gone in search of faith-based funding, every one.

Where have all the prophets gone?
Gone in search of personal comfort, every one.

Where have all the prophets gone?
Gone in search of political correctness, every one.

Where have all the prophets gone?
Gone into a ministry that places praise over speaking truth to the powers, every one.

When will they ever learn? When will they ever learn?

Walter Brueggemann (The Prophetic Imagination) says the prophet offers us an alternative consciousness to the prevailing ‘royal consciousness’ of the entrenched political, economic, social or religious powers.

An example: Tony Campolo (Speaking My Mind) writes about the hypocrisy of those who staunchly oppose same-sex marriage, but whose heterosexual divorce rate is 50%: ‘Gays often ask why evangelicals seem willing to accept couples who are divorced and remarried, a sexual relationship Jesus specifically condemned as adultery, and then come down so hard on a sexual relationship Jesus never mentioned.’ If we follow the Levitical laws proscribing same-sex behavior, why do we not also forbid the eating of pork, or promote the idea of Jubilee – releasing people from prisons and from debt? Reason: homophobia, ‘the last acceptable prejudice in America’.

But it’s not only conservative evangelicals who have a problem here: whenever the convocations of mainline churches gather, what’s the #1 item on their agendas? Same-sex marriage, and ordaining active homosexual pastors. What about the staggering number of people confined to America’s prisons, or the 46 million without health insurance (there’s that refrain again) or the scourge of HIV/AIDS, or the explosion of divorce and teen pregnancy in America?

And the black churches? ‘Too many black clergy, especially those heading megachurches, are either apolitical or apologists for the status quo. What about [the refrain plus] staggering rates of black unemployment, black-on-black crime, the rapid spread of Islam as the religion of choice among many inner-city young men?’

America is the most professedly ‘Christian’ of the developed nations (over 85% identify as Christians), and the least Christian in its behavior. It leads them all in the murder rate, the use of capital punishment, the number of persons incarcerated, the percentage of marriages ending in divorce, the rate of teen pregnancy, and the number of children living in poverty.

Meanwhile, Christians are locked into the two issues of abortion and same-sex marriage. Where have all the prophets gone?

President Bush has said ‘Owning stuff is good.’ But that’s hard for many when 85% of the nation’s wealth is controlled by 18% of the people. While conservative evangelicals focus on their two-pronged agenda, Enron and WorldCom and other companies have been looted by their chief executive officers, leaving their workers and retirees in financial ruin. But Focus on the Family won’t get too upset about these ‘family values’ concerns. Nor will they mention anything about African Americans comprising 13% of the population yet constituting over 70% of the prison population. In 9 states when offenders are released their right to vote is revoked for life. And it’s well known that if you have a black skin you’re much more likely to serve a longer sentence than whites for the same crime. (And if you’re white and rich like Martha Stewart you’ll get less than six months for securities fraud and lying to a grand jury, and then receive more television deals).

And re Iraq: many Christians do their best impersonation of ‘hear no evil – see no evil – speak no evil’. The world is full of brutal dictators, but the Bush Administration chose to eliminate one who sat on the world’s second largest reserves of oil. The war in Vietnam failed to end communism in that country; and democratization in Iraq looks to be in dire peril of suffering the same fate. The president wages these wars abroad at the expense of the war on poverty in America.

The justice agenda of Jesus (Matthew 25): poverty, sickness, prisons, and other forms of human need.

Abortion and human sexuality are not unimportant: but they are simply not the limit of what should occupy a justice agenda in the 21st century.

PATRIOT PASTORS

‘Patriot pastor’ is an oxymoron: a pastor’s allegiance should be to God and not to a political party. Amos, Micah, Samuel, Nathan, John the Baptist and Jesus regularly stood against the political establishment of their day in the name of the God of heaven and in defense of a more just and compassionate world. Where is patriot pastors’ concern was for the homeless, the hopeless, the hungry and the heartbroken in our society?

The evangelical East Waynesville Baptist Church, North Carolina forced nine members out of their church because they didn’t vote for George W Bush in the 2004 presidential election! The pastor said these people were holding back the work of the Kingdom of God.

But not all evangelicals are narrow: Rick Warren has been advocating help for the poor in Africa and elsewhere: ‘It is a moral issue… Jesus commanded us to help the poor so it is an obedience issue as well.’ Others are pressuring the government to do more about religious persecution, Darfur, enact legislation about prison rape in the USA and push for more funds to fight AIDS in Africa [PS and recently, climate change issues]. ‘God bless America is a patriotic tune and not a theological mandate. ‘In God We Trust’ may be engraved upon our nation’s currency but there is no evidence that those words have been etched upon the hearts of our nation’s leaders.

WHEN PROPHETIC PREACHING GIVES WAY TO PRAISE

On Christian television programs there’s an incessant theme of praise – but it, too, is severed from the prophetic message. Which is exactly what Amos condemned: ‘Take away from me the noise of your songs; I will not listen to the melody of your harps. But let justice roll down like waters, and righteousness like an ever-flowing stream’ (Amos 5:23-24). When upstretched hands in praise do not also become outstretched hands to lift up a fallen brother or sister, that is an abomination to God.

Now praise is good: read Psalm 150. The prophets are not calling for an end to acts of praise worship, but the striking of a balance so that deeds of justice are not overlooked or ignored while Christians are busy ‘having a high time in the house of God’. Lifting up holy hands is good: provided they extend to helping hands to those Jesus describes in Matthew 25 as ‘the least of these’.

PROPHETS TO PROFITS

‘Her leaders judge for a bribe; her priests teach for a price, and her prophets tell fortunes for money’ (Micah 3:11).

A favourite text for many ‘prosperity gospel/ health and wealth/ name it and claim it’ preachers is John 10:10, where Jesus promised his followers abundant life. But the good life and the abundant life are not synonymous. Indeed prosperity preachers who base their message on John 10:10 are in fact more reflective of the thieves and robbers who come to steal and destroy. ‘What will it profit,’ asked Jesus, ‘if you gain he whole world and forfeit your life? (Matthew 16:26)? The life of abundance offered by these preachers is more defined by television commercials and magazine advertisements than by anything found in Scripture. Jesus told us not to store up treasures on earth, but rather to store up treasures in heaven (Matthew 6:19-21). Paul says he’s content with whatever he has: ‘I know what it is to have little, and I know what I is to have plenty’ (Philippians 4:11-13).

And Jesus promised his followers that they would suffer trouble. Many preachers, writes Barbara Brown Taylor, are promising a smooth road which goes around the wilderness rather than one that leads people through the wilderness with its rough places, and crooked paths and low moments.

Item - Paula and Randy White have been blessed with an 8,000 square-foot home – and urge people who are broke to borrow money from others to give to their ‘ministry’!

Very little if anything is said by these preachers about the grinding poverty which affects hundreds of millions around the world. ‘Nothing is said about the thousands of US military who have been killed and injured in an ill-conceived and poorly conducted war in Iraq, a nation that did not attack us on September 11, 2001, and a nation that did not have weapons of mass destruction’.

In his book God Has a Dream Desmond Tutu says ‘To oppose injustice and oppression is not something that is merely political. No it is profoundly religious.’

The most prophetic voices among us today may well be the voices of women who continue to push both church and society beyond the single issue of race. If the role of women in society must remain unchanged from the days of the early church, then any opposition to slavery should also have been resisted, since Paul seemed to have accepted the reality of that evil institution in Romans 13:1-7. You would have thought Galatians 3:28 – ‘There is no longer Jew or Greek, slave or free, male or female, for all of you are one in Christ Jesus’ – would have settled this question long ago.

There are now about as many US fatalities in the Iraq war than there were fatalities on September 11, 2001. What will have been accomplished by this reckless venture?

We should be informed by a line from the hymn ‘God of Grace and God of Glory’ written by Harry Emerson Fosdick that warns ‘Save us from weak resignation to the evils we deplore’.

SERMON

The book ends with a magnificent sermon on the Pledge of Allegiance to the American flag where he takes to task those who oppose the inclusion of the phrase ‘under God’. One nation? What about he great divide between rich and poor? Liberty and justice for all? When over two million people are in prison? Republic? The inference is that no one is more important than anyone else and where everybody’s vote is supposed to count. But ‘what kind of republic allows what happened in Florida in the 2000 election? Indivisible? ‘We are divided by race, by region (ask the people in New Orleans whether we are indivisible).

And McMickle’s own moving story: His father abandoned the family when he was ten years old. Later, his mother tried to enroll in the music department at Moody Bible Institute, but was denied admission because she was a divorcee!’

Buy this powerful and moving book, read it, and suggest your pastor preach from it (if he/she is game!).

Rowland Croucher

April 2007

Thursday, April 26, 2007

LOVER OF LIFE: F W BOREHAM'S TRIBUTE TO HIS MENTOR


'Mr. Doke', as Boreham respectfully calls his friend and mentor, was by all accounts - or at least this one - a most amazing human being and pastor.

Here we have John Broadbanks Publishing's first effort at re-issuing out-of-print F W Boreham books. Congratulations to Geoff Pound and Michael Dalton for a beautifully put-together version of Boreham's 1948 book The Man Who Saved Gandhi: A Short Biography of Joseph John Doke.

F W Boreham is Australia's and New Zealand's only really collectable religious author. (Some of his rarer works have passed through my hands - to serious collectors like Ruth Graham, Billy Graham's wife, and Ravi Zacharias - for a 3-figure dollar sum, and sometimes more). So what was his special appeal? Well, he wrote about 50 very readable books (and over 2,000 newspaper articles), preached to large crowds in Hobart and Melbourne and around the world between the two World Wars, read thousands of books, but also had a pastoral 'common touch'.

And here we meet his mentor: an amazing man. Doke was - all in one person - a brilliant preacher, wise counsellor, gifted pastor, a passionate and holy Christian, lover of Scripture (he read the Bible through four times most years) and highly committed to 'foreign missions' (he died on a journey to encourage missionaries in the middle of 'darkest Africa').

And he may have been the most authentic Christian Gandhi ever met. Which makes a puzzle out of the Mahatma's often-quoted comment "Oh, I don't reject your Christ. I love your Christ. It's just that so many of you Christians are so unlike your Christ." Well, if we take Boreham's word for it, Doke was the man most-like-Christ of any he knew. And Doke was amazingly Christlike to the then little-known Gandhi when they met in South Africa.

You can read these 34 pages in one sitting. Don't. Buy it for your pastor, but read it slowly first. Order some copies to give away here.

When I get more time I'll jot down here some of the wisdom I marked from this wonderful little book.

Shalom!/Salaam!

Rowland Croucher

Monday, April 23, 2007

CHURCH AND STATE (Tom Frame)



Review: CHURCH AND STATE, Australia’s Imaginary Wall, by Tom Frame (UNSW Press 2006)

Tom Frame, historian and writer, left a military career in the navy to train for the Anglican priesthood and was, until recently, the (high profile) Bishop of the Australian armed forces. In this little book (96 pages) he probes the complex relationship between church and state, especially in Australia, where the influence of religious organizations, lobby groups and individuals has increased the temperature of the discussion about whether and to what extent government policy should be ‘√≠nformed’ (to use a neutral word) by religious dogma.

Briefly: Tom Frame reminds us that the Australian constitution does not formally separate church and state. He argues that some contact between the two spheres is both inevitable and, occasionally, desirable. But, yes, there are tensions, and, he believes, Christians are largely responsible for these.

This is really an ancient problem, as theologian Karl Barth famously reminded us: the state which God has ordained to keep order in Romans 13 is also the ‘beast from the abyss’ in Revelation 13.

Tom’s first words: ‘Australia is not a Christian nation… it never has been, [although] public life has, of course, been shaped by a long and close encounter with Christianity.’ There’s nothing in Australian law (as there is in British law) which gives any privilege to the Anglican church or precedence to any religion.

Those who demand a strict separation between church and state (eg. the Australian Democrats) are ‘separationists’: they want to erect a legal ‘wall’ that prevents interactions from a fear that an ‘established’ church might emerge. Thus separationists want to end any special privileges churches receive – eg. taxation benefits, because, it is claimed, they amount to de facto recognition of Christianity. The opposite view is that because a clear majority of Australians declare some connection with a Christian denomination, some public reflection of the beliefs and values of Christians is warranted.

There are of course, extremists on both sides: some advocating a theocracy, others a purely secular state. And inevitably against the backdrop of global religiously-inspired terrorism, church-state relations have become a cause of widespread anxiety.

Tom’s historical overview is succinct and well-researched. Ancient Israel was a theocracy: there was no administrative or political division between the religious and mundane aspects of life. Jesus was largely indifferent to Roman rule: ‘Give to Caesar what is Caesar’s; and to God what belongs to God’ (Matthew 22:21). The Christian apostles told their people to live in peace with each other and with the powers-that-be, although when those powers stepped up their persecution, they were an evil to be resisted – but peacefully, and if necessary, through martyrdom. The state was simply the means to an end in the divine ordering of the world. But Constantine’s conversion to Christianity (312 AD) changed all that: Christian baptism became a rite administered at birth, and was now a symbol of citizenship. For 1,000 years, 400 to 1400, in Western Europe, church and state were thoroughly intertwined – ending, in England, when Henry VIII declared in 1534 that the Pope’s jurisdiction did not extend to his realm. The English church was effectively nationalized and the church *in* England became the Church *of* England. But people like John Bunyan now suffered if they were not willing to conform to the laws and dogmas of the established church.

The pioneering American white settlers sailed across the Atlantic to get away from the strictures of state religions in Europe. For the first time we read of a ‘wall of separation’ between ‘the garden of religion’ and the ‘wilderness’ of temporal government (Roger Williams). Thus began the practice in the U.S. of church leaders and politicians advocating separation: as Tom Frame writes ‘the former [is] for protection, the latter to avoid interference.’ Thus began a uniquely modern phenomenon: the idea of constitutional freedom *from* religion, leading one nation (France, since 1905) towards constitutional secularism. To Tom’s knowledge no other nation has similarly legislated for a formal and legal separation of church and state. Overall, 2000 years of Christian church history led French theologian Jacques Ellul to lament that ‘whenever the Church has been in a position of power, it has regarded freedom as an enemy.’

Tom's interim conclusion at this point (p. 47: halfway through the book): ‘It is for these reasons that Christians must be encouraged to allow some distance between the church and state – for the church’s good, if nothing else.’

After some discussion over the years, the words ‘humbly relying on the blessing of Almighty God’ were eventually added to the ‘draft preamble’ to the Australian constitution (1898). Section 116 deals with religion (it’s similar to the first amendment in the U.S.): ‘The Commonwealth shall not make any law for establishing any religion, or for imposing any religious observance, or for prohibiting the free exercise of religion, and no religious test shall be required as a qualification for any office or public trust under the Commonwealth.’

Of course there has been public discussion about all this, when, for example Jehovah’s Witnesses refuse to participate in any politics or wars, or the Exclusive Brethren forbid voting (but allow many dollars to be spent lobbying for conservative political causes), or the Scientologists arguing (1983) that they are actually a religion and should be exempt as other churches are from government taxes. Then there was the Defense of Government Schools debate, and (Tom writes) ‘the subsequent legal argument highlighted the significant differences between the US first amendment and the widely held but mistaken belief that the Australian constitution provided a ‘wall of separation’.

Conclusions? ‘At no stage do the founders of the Australian federation seem to have been motivated by a sense that engagement between religion and the state was itself an undesirable thing’ (Catholic academic lawyer Joshua Puls).

A ‘wall of separation’ is impossible to maintain. Church and State… ‘are not two societies that can be separated by the erection of a wall between them. Religion exists within a society and is part of it’ (Dr. Cliff Pannam QC).

Tom’s cautious about right-wing religious influence on the political process in Australia (he’s referring to conservative groups like the Christian Democratic Party, Family First, and the Australian Christian Lobby, and Creationism/Intelligent Design people): he is concerned about the absence of strong ‘accountability to the broader Christian community’. A socially conservative mindset does not reflect the mindset of all Christian traditions in Australia.

But he’s also critical of ‘doctrinaire secularism’, which in its extreme form in the U.S. tries to forbid mentioning God or do any religious act in the public square. Doctrinaire secularism is not religiously neutral: it actually amounts to the promotion of a type of atheism as the unofficial state religion.

But, overall, ‘I have argued that interactions between the church and the state are inevitable, and, for the greatest part, no threat to the health of the body politic.’ ‘Christianity does not need political goodwill or financial support to survive or fulfil its mission…’ but secularists can sleep easily because ‘there is no future prospect of a religious establishment in Australia and none should be encouraged…. Unlike the U.S. Australia does not need a wall of separation between church and state, and none will be needed in the future.'

I have only a couple of minor puzzles with Tom’s approach. Why does he use the (evangelically- biassed) New American Standard translation of the Bible when he could have chosen a more respectable version, like the NRSV?

More importantly, he should have given us just a few pages outlining sympathetically the approaches to the left and right of his position. Why did the outstanding leftist jurist and senator Lionel Murphy fear too much religion ‘meddling’ with politics? On the other hand, why do the evangelical right fear that their convictions about abortion and homosexuality (in particular) will be eroded by liberal legislation?

Also he could have given ordinary folks a better handle on the essence of the debate, which might be expressed this way by conservative Christians: ‘The doctrine of separation between church and state is not about keeping religion out of politics, but keeping politics out of religion.’ And in these words by more liberal – but not secularist - thinkers: ‘If freedom and democracy mean anything, they mean the right of the individual to bring their personal beliefs into the sphere of public discourse regardless of the religious, philosophical, or political basis of those beliefs.’

Rowland Croucher
April 2007

Sunday, April 22, 2007

TEN BLOGS



Dear friends,

I am in the process of composing ten Blogs for different audiences. Here are their titles and URLs:

1 Month to Meet the Baptists

1 Month of Books you should Read

1 Month to Learn About the Internet

1 Month to Understand your Local Church

1 Month of Answers to Tough Questions

1 Month of Devotions


1 Month to Change Your Life


1 Month to Meet Some Interesting People

1 Month to Become a Christian

1 Month To Meet Jesus

So for the remainder of this year I'm aiming to write about five articles a week: watch for them. And feel free to leave your comments!

Shalom!/Salaam!

Rowland Croucher

John Mark Ministries

Wednesday, April 04, 2007

Huston Smith: THE SOUL OF CHRISTIANITY

Huston Smith: The Soul of Christianity, HarperSanFrancisco 2005.

Huston Smith, son of Methodist missionaries in China, friend of Thomas Merton and Joseph Campbell, teacher and friend of Marcus Borg, wrote this book in 2004, and says it was 'the most exciting year of my writing'.

His parents' first child, whom he never knew, died in his father's arms one Christmas Eve. Other insights into his spiritual formation are interesting: 'One night, [my father] was visiting a village thirty miles away and he went by boat, but the lake froze over in the three days he was there... [so] he walked thirty miles home over ice. So it was that intensity, sincerity, devotion that I assimilated from my parents that was most important.' 'In our missionary home in traditional China, breakfast was followed by morning prayers, which included our servants' family. As we sat in a circle, our mother would lead us in singing a stanza of a hymn, in Chinese, of course. Then adults would take turns reading verses from the Bible... Then we would stand, about face, get down on our knees, and bury our faces in our hands on the seats of our chairs as my father led us in a prayer that closed with all of us saying the Lord's Prayer...'

Huston Smith has generally succeeded in his aim of writing a book about Christianity 'that carries the assent of all Christians', a book which is not combative, respecting various interpretations of Christianity without arguing with them. My view would be that only a liberal thinker like Huston Smith could do this. How liberal is he? Study this: 'I'm a universalist. I refuse to prioritize any one of the eight great religious traditions over the others.'

He ranges over the whole spectrum of Christianity (though hardly mentions Pentecostalism, if at all), citing liberal authors (eg. Marcus Borg) and conservative ones (like N T Wright and John Polkinghorne). He is critical of conservative Christians for their literalism and dogmatism and tendency to slip into 'disastrous political agendas' which are 'untrue to Jesus'. But Liberal churches 'are digging their own graves, for without a robust, emphatically theistic world-view to work within, they have nothing to offer their members except rallying cries to be good. We have it from Peter Berger that "if anything characterizes modernity it is the loss of the sense of transcendence".'

Huston Smith has more of a gift of wisdom/knowledge of comparative religions than accuracy. It wasn't Timothy who said 'Without doubt the mystery of our religion is great' (p. 32) but the writer of 1 Timothy (maybe Paul). It wasn't Jesus who talked about 'rejoicing with those who rejoice, and weeping with those who weep' (p. 63), it was Paul in Romans 12:15 - unless Smith has some evidence that Paul quotes Jesus at this point, evidence no one else has! For mispellings of Annie Dillard ('Anne Dillard' p. 125 etc.) we can forgive an old man - but not his editor/s. And his use of the Authorized Version of the Bible here and there (some quotes with sexist language) is unusual for a Christian scholar.

A couple of statements are in the category 'But that I can't believe', like

* 'If Jesus had not been followed by Paul, the Sermon on the Mount would have evaporated in a generation or two' (p. 89).

* 'The Christian worldview compressed into a sentence: the world is perfect, and the human opportunity is to see that and conform to that fact' (p. 33).

However, all that said, I marked the following for more reflection:

* God is *defined* by Jesus, but he is not *confined* to Jesus

* The Infinite is that out of which you cannot fall

* If it is not paradoxical, it isn't true (Shunryu Suzuki)

* A NT scholar went to heaven and asked Paul if he wrote the Letter to the Ephesians. Paul thought for a moment, stroked his beard, and said 'Yes, I think I did' which is as much as to say 'Who cares?'

* The intuitive mind is a sacred gift and the rational mind is its faithful servant

* 'I pray God [the God above all distinctions] that he may quit me of [the personal] God' (Meister Eckhart)

* [The people who first heard Jesus' teaching] were astonished, and with reason. If we are not, it is because we have heard Jesus's teachings so often that their edges have been worn smooth, dulling their glaring subversiveness

* 'O God whose boundless love and joy / are present everywhere, / He cannot come to visit you / unless you are not there' (17th century German mystical poet Angelus Silesius)

* Hell is popularly depicted as a fiery furnace whose flames do not consume bodies but torture them forever. But this is only a metaphor; it cannot be literally true, for resurrected bodies are incorporeal and do not have flesh that could be burned. (Remember that resurrection is not resuscitation). The theological definition of hell is total aloneness... Will anyone burn in hell forever? The answer is no, for nothing can deprive us of the imago Dei that is the foundation of our humanity

* 'There was no thing on earth I wanted to possess/ I knew no one worth my envying him' (Czeslaw Milosz)

* Though divine in origin, the Church is made up of humans, of sinners, and so in an act unique for any institution, at the end of the second millennium the Pope publicly apologized and did penance in the name of the Church for the sins of individual Christians throughout the ages

* 'The Protestant Principle', stated philosophically, warns against absolutizing the relative. Stated theologically, it warns against idolatry. (But the chief Protestant idolatry has been bibliolatry)

* Protestant diversity is not as great as its hundreds of denominations (most of them more adequately termed sects) suggest... Actually, 85% of all Protestants belong to 12 denominations.

It's a challenging book.

Shalom! Rowland Croucher

March 2007

WELCOME!

Here's a Blog of articles and reviews.
For more, visit our website (with its 20,000 articles: so get comfortable!)

Shalom!/Salaam!/Pax!

Rowland Croucher

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Husband, father, grandfather, great grandfather, pastor, teacher, writer, used-to-be-academic... See here for more: http://jmm.org.au